'Our mission was to create a community': How Hrodna.life works for Hrodna against all odds
Hrodna.life is a special regional publication for Hrodna. According to the editorial office, they have always tried to be unlike others and create a community in addition to informing the public, to improve life in the town. Its legal entity was liquidated by the authorities, but the medium keeps working in Hrodna against all odds.
'Hrodna.life is one of my children'
Aliaksei Shota
Editor-in-chief of Hrodna.life, keeps working from Hrodna
'People are steamed up, ready to blast off. And you, with your writing!'

Full scale pressure on Hrodna.life started in 2021, although a lot happened already in 2020. The first shot was in June 2020. We were the first on site when Siarhei Tsikhanouski was arrested, and we gained a lot of traffic: the BBC, TASS and others referred to us.

In a couple of days I was summoned to the City Executive Committee regarding a violation of the law 'On Advertising'. We published a piece about a new bar and there was, indeed, an error on our—on my part as an editor. There was a menu with prices visible in one photo. It is a violation, formally.

There was no punishment at the time. Head of the CEC Mechyslau Goi warranted personally that we would not let the same happen again. Yet it was clear they summoned us regarding Tsikhanouski exclusively. In addition to the employees from the economic department and the trade department the ideologist was also present. Our discussion was mostly about, 'Don't add pressure. You're instigating. People are steamed up, ready to blast off. And you, with your writing!' I was eager to ask, 'Why are people ready to blast off? Who'd steamed them up? Was it us, really?'
Aliaksei Shota. Photo: Andrei Shavlyugo for Naviny.by
More disturbing events took place in the fall when all the big rallies ended and only small scattered marches remained. They prevented people from gathering and started to capture journalists as well.

Lena Kavalchuk, our journalist, was detained in September; there was an inspection under Article 23.34 (unauthorized mass event, Administrative Code before amendment on 01.03.2021 — Ed.) and regarding illegal issue of mass media materials. All cases were closed, she was not punished. But the police kept her phone and camera for over a month and Lena herself was under inspection. She even had to travel to her birthplace in Belavezhskaya Puscha where she was summoned by the local district police officer under one of the inspections.

The most known story was about Ruslan Kulevich. He was detained during the protests in the aftermath of the election. He spent several days at the detention facility with his arms fractured.

But back then, we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Photo: Andrei Shavlyugo for Naviny.by
'New year started a destruction campaign'

And in 2021, a destruction campaign started. On 29 January, an unexpected search was conducted at our editorial office. We were not there, we were at our homes having a Zoom meeting. They took office equipment, documents, money, some printed products, promotional materials. About six months later, we managed to retrieve all equipment in operating state, money. Nothing was broken, damaged. But the promotional materials we could not get back: they said they destroyed it.

That was when the 'information campaign' started. During the search, they confiscated an old mobile phone which we used for call recording. It stored one old document from 2015, which I had completely forgotten about. Hrodna.life hadn't even existed in its present form yet. Something about me having received about 100 or 150 Euros from a Polish foundation which produced Polish TV shows I have been running for the last five years. I pay taxes in Belarus, it's not a secret. But the propagandists published that document, like, 'Look, Shota lives on Polish money.' They probably implied I've been running the editorial office for six years with that money.

It was clear this was just the beginning and they would push until the end. There were two cases in six months: for spreading extremist information, for a repost from a Telegram channel or using a photo with its logo. Both the firm and I and Irina Novik were involved in the case. We were punished twice for one violation with huge fines, more than 26 thousand BYN.

Then our Telegram channel was recognized as extremist and we had to delete it and start a new one. We lost a lot of subscribers.

Very soon after that, the prosecutor filed a lawsuit requesting to liquidate our organisation because, in his opinion, it violated the law multiple times. In fact, it was a misinterpretation: single court proceedings cannot be interpreted as multiple violations of the law. The mission here was to close the medium as soon as possible.

Eventually, on 26 August they forced us to close before 30 November. We are in no hurry. Our employees, whose employment was terminated, were on holiday, now it's my turn. When we're all back, we'll have two months to close.


'There was a major shift… so they started to pressure the local media'

In 2020, for the first time in many years—maybe even in the whole history of the independent Belarus—something actually happened in regions. Earlier, nothing happened except for rare events, such as protesting against the battery plant. Political fighting has always been concentrated in Minsk. I love Minsk very much, but I have to admit it is a vampire suckin everything out from the regions, Minsk's agenda always prevails.

And then this major shift. For example, there is a case in Hrodna similar to the walk-around case (a protest case involving a lot of Brest citizens. — Ed.), the 'Molochny Mir' case. As far as we know, there are several hundreds of people who might be punished.
Photo: Andrei Shavlyugo for Naviny.by
That is why pressure on the local media started. On those who covered the events decently, properly. We were the only ones in the city who gave information on the events of August 2020, not about seed plots or 'it's the first of September soon'.

Such was the response from the authorities. They looked at and analyzed the materials. And in their opinion, such information was 'wire-pulling'. If you provide information, you're their enemy.

All popular publications followed-up on court hearings, repressions: Binokl (Brest), Silnye Novosti (Homiel), Brestskaya Gazeta (Brest), Regionalnaya Gazeta (Maladzečna) and others. All publications which had properly covered the election campaign and the events following it—they all fell under pressure.


'We keep working'

We keep working; our website keeps working, it's not going anywhere. Its form is another question, however. The website currently doesn't belong to me or to the firm. The only question is what to do with the people. We are now thinking about the most convenient and safe option.

Advertisers are still interested in our website. Maybe slightly decreased, but we receive requests periodically. So it would be strange to stop now.

There is a possibility to relocate. It is an open opportunity: if you want, you might move to another country tomorrow. Yet the majority of our employees who are now in Belarus don't want to leave, they are willing to stay here. It is very good and heroic, as the Deputy Head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Barys Haretski said, 'Everyone who stays are heroes'. The issue of physical safety is always considered, each and every one keeps in mind the possibility of leaving. We as an editorial office also will provide any assistance.
Photo provided by Hrodna.life
It is a great pity that we cannot do what we had been doing before: our offline activities were very important for us. We cannot publish two books, it's unsafe in Belarus now. In addition, guided tours, offline quests, master classes, exhibitions, round tables—our editorial office had done all that, but the conditions are becoming more and more complicated.

It was an important way to contact our very loyal audience. It was an opportunity to monetize, and it made us unique. Our mission was to form a community, that was what made us different. Maybe because we came out of the third sector and always rested on two pillars, journalistic one and civil one. It was important for us to not just inform and collect traffic, but also influence the events in our city, urban politics and environment and make our city better together with its residents.

Nobody except us covered different civil initiatives, organisations, actions, events before it became mainstream. No one was interested except us.

Hrodna.life is one of my children. I've been with the project since it's very beginning. I've put a lot of effort, time, knowledge, skills and contacts into it. The project constantly grew and developed, it was fruitful.

It is very sad for the city to lose such a medium.
'Regional mass media must withstand'
Iryna Novik
Special projects editor at Hrodna.life, co-founder
Left Belarus after several court hearings, administrative detainment and fines
'If we ignore we're in the state of war, everything is the same'

Our core team works in Hrodna. Only Ruslan Kulevich and I have left. In terms of workflow arrangement we've learned a lot in the past year of the pandemic when we responsibly stayed at home and urged our readers to do the same. We've learned to work online.

In this past year, we've mastered working through messengers, learned how to approve materials for publication with each other remotely. We have planners where we try to schedule publications by dates. There is a system of dayly and weekly approvals. It's not that complicated now.

I know those who remained in Hrodna meet offline, too, to shake hands and work on publications, to discuss routine work issues or have an intellectual quiz. We used to play often and now they are keeping the tradition.

If we ignore we're in the state of war, everything is the same. We try to work as usual and maintain our normal way of life.
Iryna Novik. Photo from personal archive
For me, nothing much changed in terms of work. I'm an editor after all. I work with other people's texts, with journalists. Remote work is nothing extraordinary. It's only a pity I cannot see my colleagues in person, hold their hand, look into their eyes, share a cup of coffee. I miss that a lot.


'Not to put all eggs in one basket'

Clearly, in times of uncertainty one website is not enough. almost nothing. We are thinking about further development, about creating new venues, new spots, new platforms. It should be something quick, not requiring a lot of skills, time and financial investments. So we will focus on working in social media, Instagram and Telegram.

It is possible we will create something not only under the Hrodna.life brand: something with a more narrow subject to segment our audience, to write about things they are interested in. I think we might turn into a multi-platform, hybrid mass medium.

We are considering various formats, various directions to try. It is a chance not to put all eggs in one basket to avoid significant losses in case one of the platforms gets closed. It is also a possibility for the journalists to try themselves in different themed projects and different formats.


'Regional media must withstand'

This past year had a lot of surprises for the authorities: it turned out, people can talk and listen to each other, they can come to an agreement, they can stand together and become a force. The fact that people united somehow was very frightening for the authorities. So they now close everything that can potentially be an assemblage point for the people. Hrodna.life has always been such a point.

What was different about the 2020 rallies and protests, not only Minsk stood up. Hrodna was one of the regions where resistance—huge, mass, authentic one—was really noticeable. If not for the local sources of information, if we were not there, on the ground, close to the events, nobody would have known anything.
Photo provided by Hrodna.life
It is important that the press lives. Especially the regional one. And since I worry about my beloved Hrodna the most, Hrodna.life is very important for me, for Hrodna citizens. It is a source of information different from what the state-owned media provide. And to be completely honest, it is the only source of information because all others give propaganda rather than information.

That's why regional mass media must withstand. We must preserve them somehow.

It can be hard these days. There can be moments when you think we did everything wrong or did nothing, we only made mistakes and failed completely. But it's not how it is. We should not consider what happened a mistake. We've achieved a lot: we were noticed, we noticed ourselves, many felt—maybe for the first time—like a nation, identified themselves as Belarusians which is very important.

Each step forward, even if it's not a step but only facing in the right direction, is already moving. Everything will be fine.
Cover photo: Andrei Shavlyugo for Naviny.by